Thursday, August 10, 2006

Let Me Be the First to Welcome Our New Crustacean Overlords

Apparently Norwegian fjords are suffering from a Soviet-introduced invasive species. Doesn't sound so bad, until you realize that this is the rather gargantuan king crab we're talking about here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

News You Can Use

Courtesy of The Plank, I see that some public-service minded blogger out there has gone to the trouble of remixing Senator Ted Stevens' rather confused comments on that internet thing into a not otherwise notable electronica track. I'm already getting nostalgic for the days of the Singing Senators.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Like a Chocoholic, but with Alcohol

That's what Robert Zubrin, the (IMHO) brilliant former NASA and Martin Marietta engineer, thinks our country needs to become in order to free ourselves from dependence on morally and economically costly middle eastern oil. Zubrin outlines his case for massive legislative support of ethanol/methanol fueled cars in an old issue of The American Enterprise I've been trying to find for a week or two.

A pretty healthy percentage of political writing advocating near-term "energy independence" for the United States is so underinformed as to almost count as an argument for the other side, which is why it's so refreshing to read something like Zubrin's article. He begins by dispensing with the biggest red herring in energy policy today: hydrogen-powered cars. Despite the widely known problems with trying to use hydrogen to power the automobiles of a country that's not Iceland, hydrogen fuel cells are far too often promoted out by politicians who would rather postpone resolution of outstanding problems in energy policy for future generations. As Zubrin states,
The bottom line is that hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is a carrier of energy, and one of the least practical carriers we know of.
The majority of his article, however, is an extended summary of the physics and economics of alcohol fuels. Recent rises in oil prices are finally making these fuels competitive with gasoline, and, just as importantly, the feasibility of transitioning to a gasohol (some mixture of methanol, ethanol, and traditional gasoline) economy has been demonstrated by Brazil. Thanks to some far-sighted (or unabashedly self-interested, depending on your view of the Brazilian sugar lobby) legislation, a majority of new cars produced for the Brazilian market are now flex-fuel vehicles. I won't summarize the whole thing, but if you want to see a compelling case for Congressional mandates on flex-fuel engines and ethanol production, read Bob Zubrin's article.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Thinking Outside the Van Allen Belts

Tuesday's Times Science section had the good judgement to publish an article about one of my favorite engineering proposals of all time: regulating the Earth's climate by building a giant diverging Fresnel lens at the Earth-Sol system's L1 Lagrange point. By rotating the lens you can control what percent (up to a maximum of maybe .01%, depending on just how big and how divergent this lens is) of incident sunlight gets bent away from the Earth's surface. This of course would obviate the need to worry about things like carbon dioxide emissions, since any increase in the greenhouse effect could be compensated for by limiting the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth. I've never seen a particularly detailed engineering proposal for this, but I can't imagine it would be that hard to build once the first space elevator goes up and reduces lift costs to transatlantic flight levels. There's some other stuff in there about seeding cloud decks with sulfur to increase reflectivity, but clearly massive orbiting lenses are the most politically viable of our options at this stage.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Just plain pathetic

I tend not to post about the corruption in the GOP because 1) I have nothing new to add and 2) Nick can usually give better insights based on his, well, close connections. But I just had to take quick note of this gem.

The Abramoff corruption scandal is growing larger and larger, with former White House aide David Safavian found guilty yesterday of obstruction of justice and lying. He's just the most recent one to fall, and the only one so far tied directly to the administration. Right now, everyone has their eye on Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) who was implicated numerous times for taking bribes in Abramoff's indictment as 'Official A'. Everyone knew Official A was Ney, but he denied any illegal activity and publicly announced that he would run for reelection.

Ok, enough back story. Today, the McCain Report on the exploitation of the Tigua tribe came out. But in the case of Rep. Ney, it practically flat-out accuses him of lying. Talking Points Memo has the story:
The committee has numerous witnesses testifying that Ney sat down with representatives from the Texas Tigua tribe, a de facto Abramoff client, for a lengthy meeting -- an hour and a half to two hours... But Ney, in a meeting with Senate investigators, claimed not to be familiar with the Tigua. Never heard of them. He couldn't remember meeting with them. Did he meet with Tigua reps for two hours? No, he "wouldn’t even meet with the President for two hours.”
It gets fun when he explains why there's a discrepancy:
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for Ney, said yesterday that the congressman's meeting with the committee "was a voluntary meeting -- it was not conducted under oath."

The committee report said that those witnesses who were not placed under oath were reminded of "the applicability of the false statements act" and of statutes dealing with obstruction of a congressional investigation. (Washington Post)
So it's ok to lie because he wasn't under oath. Good one.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Renewing the Literacy Test

Normally I'd be happy when legislation backed by the president was blocked in Congress. Normally I'd be extra pleased to find out that the delay in voting was due to a disagreement within the GOP representitives, a sign that the DeLay days of ironclad party discipline are over. But normally Bush isn't pushing legislation in agreement with almost unanimous Democratic support.

Working at the Library of Congress, I've helped run a number of events discussing the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last summer I was surprised to hear that the act was due to expire in 2007. Not surprisingly, I forgot about the content of the event and was more excited at getting Kerry and Obama's pictures. It was brought to my attention again last week in a speech by Congressman Charles Gonzoles (D-TX) reminding everyone that the act had not yet been renewed. The act was hailed as a landmark for the civil rights movement. So why would a number of Republicans want to block it from passing?
House leaders abruptly canceled a vote to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act yesterday after rank-and-file Republicans revolted over provisions that require bilingual ballots in many places and continued federal oversight of voting practices in Southern states. (Washington Post)
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) requested an amendment getting rid of the requirement to have all voting information in other languages -- and was denied.
That was "a gigantic mistake," said Rep. Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr. (R-Ga.), a leading critic of the act's renewal. "What people are really upset about is bilingual ballots," he said. "The American people want this to be an English-speaking nation."
Let's ignore the content of that comment for a moment and reflect on the nature of the literacy tests during Jim Crow. After the 15th amendment passed allowing all men over 21 the right to vote regardless of race, the new strategy to deny poor blacks the right to vote was to ask them to pass a literacy test. The test was administered unfairly, often targeting blacks with harder questions or combining with the Grandfather clause to keep whites from being affected. Even had it been administered fairly, however, the act focused on making it harder for one demographic to vote. If we strip the provision from the Voting Rights Act requiring multi-lingual ballots and information forms, how would it be any different from targeting recent immigrants?

There is, of course, a literacy test on the citizenship test. But it focuses more on history and how our government works than on testing whether immigrants are fluent in English. Check out a sample test and think about how much English you would have to know to get by it. I do think that the United States should push everyone to be able to speak and read English, but to use voting rights as a method to do so is wrong.

Friday, April 21, 2006

We Are All Going to Die

It's been a while since I've had a post devoted to full-throated criticism of the U.N, and unfortunately I don't have the time to write one of those right now, so I think I'll let this Haaretz article on the "election of Iran to U.N. disarmament panel" speak for itself.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


For the past few weeks the Washington Monthly has had a fascinating series on that rarest of things - good news from Iraq. You can read Jonathan Dworkin's reporting on his travels through northern Iraq here. As an account of one of the few tasks the U.S. has actually succeeded at in Iraq, the series is quite interesting, but I think Dworkin is leaning toward the wrong conclusions based on his experience in the Kurdish regions of Iraq.

As Arab Iraq seems to descend closer and closer to all-out civil war, it's tempting to write off the lower 70% of the country for the sake of the Kurds, who seem to be succeeding at creating a viable state in the north. However, there's one overriding problem with partition as a policy option, and that's the existence of large, ethnically-mixed cities like Kirkuk and to a lesser extent Mosul. While these cities haven't exactly been known for their tranquility since the fall of Saddam, neither have they erupted into the nightmares of Yugoslav-style ethnic cleansing that many feared. But the prospect of Kurdish independence (or even regional autonomy greater than what exists now) would probably be the straw that breaks the camel's back, prompting the Kurdish political parties to accelerate the currently ongoing process of Kurdish resettlement in Kirkuk, and likewise leading Arab militants to do everything in their power to scare Kurds out of those cities.

The inevitable Turkish opposition to Kurdish independence is probably the most-mentioned argument against partition, but I don't think this is really such a serious stumbling block. I haven't read anything that would indicate Turkey would actually intervene militarily (rogue Turkish special forces agents aside), and short of that there's not very much Ankara could do to prevent the Kurds from formalizing their independence. Moreover, to some degree the existence of an independent Kurdish state would actually benefit Turkey, by giving those Turkish Kurds who most want to live in a Kurdish country an outlet for their nationalism. With the emigration of many of the most nationalistic Kurds, militant groups like the PKK would have a much harder time finding support in Turkey's Kurdish population.

Nonetheless, the specter of ethnic bloodbaths in Kirkuk and Mosul seems to be a pretty much intractable problem with partition. The Kurdish political parties don't seem to want to give up Kirkuk and neither do the Sunni Arabs. Without the possibility of agreement on that issue, it seems like the Kurds' fate is tied to the rest of Iraq.

Monday, January 30, 2006

No Medicine For You

Well just when you think the right to lifers can't get any more ridiculous with some of their extremist positions, you read articles like this.
Basically, the premise is that doctors, nurses, and pharmacists would have to violate their core moral beliefs in order to do something like allowing a woman to obtain birth control or the morning after pill. This violates their "core" beliefs because of the supposed possibility (albeit it is as of yet entirely unproven and purely hypothetical and unlikely) that birth control might cause an "abortion." Never mind the fact that these drugs function entirely on a basis of preventing fertilization, and disregard the fact that non-successful implantations (the supposed and unlikely "abortion") of zygotes naturally occurs all the time in all mammals depending on a large number of factors.

The idea is, therefore, we need laws to protect medical professionals so that no one can punish them for simply following their "core beliefs." Obviously, for such legislation to have any chance of being constitutional, this moral statute could not be explicitly tied to conservative Christian beliefs.

Indeed, this proposal is not specific to just birth control, it would span broadly:

Doctors opposed to fetal tissue research, for example, could refuse to notify parents that their child was due for a chicken pox inoculation because the vaccine was originally produced using fetal tissue cell cultures, said R. Alto Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin.

"That physician would be immunized from medical malpractice claims and state disciplinary action," Charo said.

This would also seem to extend to a surgeon refusing to treat a patient who was injured whilst involved in a criminal act, which as I understand it is currently mandatory. Moreover, the libertarian doctors could start refusing medical care to the uninsured, and maybe some homophobic pharmacist might decide it is within his right to deny AIDS drugs to a gay man, an intravenous drug user, a former hooker, or anyone who happens to offend one of his delicate sensibilities.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Stalin, Reconsidered

Since even the most distinguished apologists for authoritarianism don't bother trying to repair Josef Stalin's reputation, I figured it would be pretty hard to pull off. But recent reports seem to indicate that the USSR's scientist-in-chief "ordered the creation of Planet of the Apes-style warriors by crossing humans with apes." Just how evil can a guy who reminds us of cherished childhood memories (in this case, Exosquad) really be?

Friday, December 16, 2005


National Review breaks its self-imposed vow of silence on the many ethical and procedural problems of the 109th Congress with, well, a surprisingly good editorial. It's worth a read, as is the bill proposed by Barney Frank which NR approvingly cites.

Monday, December 05, 2005

It's Been a Bad Weekend for Multiculturalism

At least, that's the conclusion I reached after reading two articles, one in the Times, one in the Post, neither of which usually look approvingly on policies of assimilation. The first one has the more serious topic of honor killings and pro-9/11 demonstrations in the impoverished suburbs of Berlin. The second one has the funnier topic of the Red Cross apologizing to various ethnic pressure groups for saving their constituents' lives in Gulf Coast states hit by hurricane Katrina. The most striking thing about the article is the complete absence of any demonstration of how insufficiently multicultural hiring by the Red Cross led to avoidable deaths or property damage. Instead you get complaints like this:
In large Red Cross shelters, where most volunteers were white, the mostly minority evacuees 'felt like they were being herded like cattle.'
Or this:
"Black people were offended that Red Cross volunteers running the Astrodome facility in Houston wore latex gloves."
The one semi-serious complaint in this article is that a lack of translators limited the ability of the Red Cross to understand what immigrant victims of Katrina were saying to them. Given that this problem stems from two failings of immigrant communities - insufficient English education, and very low rates of volunteering at charitable institutions like the Red Cross - groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus might want to reevaluate their support for better assimilationist policies (which at this point probably means stricter border control and more aggressive deportation of illegal immigrants to diminish the incentives to remain fluent in only a non-English language) rather than berate the Red Cross for alleged insensitivities. Of course, given that the raison d'etre for most ethnic advocacy groups is that their ethnicities are and always will be distinct blocs in American society, they may find a bit of a contradiction there.

Despite some policy failings, immigration and assimilation proceed fairly well in this country, a fact one can always be reminded of by looking at Western Europe. I think the Times article diagnoses the problem pretty accurately (it's a magazine piece, and thus more opinionated than their regular reporting) as being the multiculturalist approach to immigration taken for the past few decades. However, given that most in the German political class seem to support a continuation of these policies, it's hard to see where change will come from.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hitting the Right Notes on Torture

This may be getting a little old hat for him, but John McCain has again laid out the definitive case against legalizing torture. His piece pretty much encapsulates my views (particularly as regards the worthlessness of the ticking time bomb example) on the subject, so I don't have anything terribly insightful to add. It's worth a read, though.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Looks like we can all breathe

...a sigh of relief.
Maybe they finally did the math and figured out that Harriet Miers' cronyism and danger to the republic coefficients were several orders of magnitude higher than her qualifications.